You Are There: the Presidential Inauguration

I was going to post something on presidential inaugurations, and asked my friend Carolyn Presutti, a TV reporter, if she could send me a few comments on what it’s like to be out there on the Mall covering the big event. She did better than that. She wrote down her whole experience, and it’s so interesting, I’m publishing it all. So, friends, here’s what it’s like to be Carolyn Presutti, TV reporter, on inauguration day.

MY AWES by Carolyn Presutti, VOA News

I can’t sleep. I’m too excited.

That’s what happens to me, on the night before a “big” event I’m covering. My head is filled with all the research I’ve done the days prior and I’m bursting at the seams to report what I know.

My two backpacks are filled to the max with redundant items, just in case. Extra pens. Check. A flashlight radio so I can hear the president’s speech. Check. Extra batteries for it. Check. Hand and feet warmers. Check. Makeup and hair spray. Check. Big mirror. Check. Raw carrots and trail mix. Check. Hand soap. Check. Starbucks card so I don’t need to carry much cash. Check. Extra socks and gloves. Check. Two newspapers, in case I want to reference the front page. Check. Business cards for anyone living without a computer. Check. My earpiece so I can hear the producer’s direction. Check. Earplugs. Check.

On my way down on metro, I tweet a photo of a group of teens, visiting from South Africa for the inauguration. They sing and dance.

I don’t care what political party you follow or who you voted for. The excitement of a crowd is contagious. People are happy….thrilled to be in DC. And, they are happy to be interviewed.

I exit metro and walk to my location where I’ll be live during our VOA news show from 11-1. I have my map of Freedom Plaza, altho I’ve been there hundreds of times. I have the rundown of the show, the timing, my research on the parade, the news releases on this year’s parade, and I have cell phones of everyone who has a credential since the inauguration committee issued me the wrong one and I might have to “swap out” with a colleague. (I actually have to do this, once I get on site.)

Journalists are always under deadline, so the secret service created special security lines for media at the Pennsylvania Avenue security checkpoint. I am told to cut the line and move to the front (yes, I feel guilty about that, but I injured my foot and it’s in a medical boot, so I really needed the speedy go-through).

The secret service agent searches both of my overflowing backpacks and confiscates my spray hand sanitizer, saying it was an aerosol. (Guess he didn’t see my hairspray, which a live reporter needs more than a hand sanitizer.) It is four hours before the parade and people are lined up along the route, standing between the risers. The agent tells me people lined up at 4:30 am outside his checkpoint and the line wrapped around the block — it didn’t open until 8:30! So, they sit on their reserved riser seats. Or stand on the curb. Waiting for the parade that won’t start for more than six hours. If they are that dedicated, I want to tell their story!

I walk up the riser to my third level spot, and immediately begin to feel at home. I see many of my colleagues from other TV stations – hugs all around. They are doing liveshots too.

Someone says, the president is driving by soon. The cameras shoot video, I grab a photo to tweet. National guard troops and police on foot and on bicycles line the street shoulder-to-shoulder at the steel barriers and scan the crowd. Military officers face the street, stand at attention, and salute. Cheers begin as the crowd realizes what’s happening. Incredibly, the motorcade extends the entire mile long route to the Capitol – it starts slowly with nine police motorcycles. Then four police SUVs, a black armored SUV, two black town cars, three black SUVs, two more town cars, another black SUV, one more town car, a white media van with cameras mounted on top and out the back opened door. And behind that, the president’s limo, followed by seven SUVs bunched closer together, two black vans, five more black SUVs, another town car, four black vans, a black ambulance, black van, black SUV, black van, 2 black SUVs, another town car, an ambulance, four SUVs, 2 white ambulances, three white police cars, a grey SUV, a black SUV, a white police car, a white police SUV, and nine more police motorcycles. Whew. 74 vehicles in all. The Prez is taking a lot of friends to his inauguration.

My live shot is in ten minutes. So, try to imagine this. I’m on a riser. One foot from me is a reporter who is speaking Arabic. The reporter right behind me is speaking another language. The American reporter one level up from me is going live too. The speakers are blaring patriotic music for the thousands gathered for the parade. I put in my earpiece and put my earplug in my other ear to tone down the chatter and I try to focus. I wait for my intro. Soon I’m saying, “That’s right, Dimi. It certainly is a different street today….”

During my liveshot, the music blaring from those enormous loudspeakers changes to live NPR coverage, which bleeds into my ear piece. I begin to hear that, instead of my voice. For a while, I think we are off the air. I keep going, but I pull out my ear piece (an on-air message to let the anchors know they cannot ask me a question b/c I won’t be able to hear them above the bleed thru). I sign off and feel pretty good about getting through all the unexpected occurrences.

The president’s oath and inaugural address are piped through the speakers next, so I sit on the riser and take notes, marking the sentences I’ll use in my evening report.

My next liveshot is about the parade. I show how the spectators hope they are sitting at the location where the President and Mrs. Obama will step outside their limousine and walk the rest of the way to the White House.

My iPhone is switched to Celsius so I check my phone and tell my global viewers the current temperature and compare it to other inaugurations. (Imagine my shock the next morning when I wake up and the iPhone temperature says it’s minus 17! Haha)

I’m done with live shots, so I leave my perch – my riser to history – and try to make it back to the office.

I’m taking photos as I walk…. The line for security now stretches around the block as people who heard the speech now try to get to the parade. One California lady tells me she was too cold, so she sat at a deli and took pictures off the TV screen so she could tell people back home she was “this close” to Obama! She buys an inaugural souvenir that reads, “I was there for history.” A sidewalk vendor is selling red, white and blue cookies. I buy some for co-workers who haven’t been able to leave the building. I take a photo of a woman holding ten American flags.

My colleague –a VOA photographer – is on the mall immediately after the speech, getting interviews and video for my story. He says, he turned the corner right in time to see a man drop to his knee. And, propose to his girlfriend. These are the kinds of experiences that make our day.

Then – remember my bum foot? I’m 1.5 miles from my office. No cabs run because of all the closed streets. The metros have enormous lines and I have a report to do for this evening. So, I hail a pedicab for the ride to the office. Biker Kay is from North Carolina and doesn’t know DC streets at all! We run into closed areas, so he ends up pedaling past the Capitol (they don’t call it Capitol Hill for nothing!) and then around the other side. We are totally against the onslaught of walkers. All of them beg him for a ride the other way.

He’s been great, really patient after running into dead ends. My hour ride is only $20, including tip, so I secure him four more passengers and I up the rate to $40 each. The passengers are happy to get the ride and smiling Kay forgets his burning quadriceps and rides away, knowing he’ll have more money to take back to North Carolina. Kay gets a tweeted photo too, since he’s also a tourist.

As a reporter, I’m humbled by my closeness to history and the responsibility to tell the world what I witness. Anytime I cover a big event, I arrive on the scene and take it all in as a regular, living breathing American. I just stand in astonishment that I am there at this very moment in time. In, oftentimes, the closest seat imaginable. It’s my “awe” moment.

Then, I put on my reporter hat. My “awe” moments are why I love my job. If I ever lose this childlike wonderment, it’s time for me to get outta the biz.

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One response to “You Are There: the Presidential Inauguration

  1. Thank you so much for posting this! I’ve never thought terribly much about a reporter’s perspective on big events like this, but it puts a smile on my face to know that your friend enjoys it just as much as everyone else who is there. 🙂

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